Upon Reflection: Reading Literature in a Digital Age

FutureLearn

I’ve long been intrigued by the ways in which technology is changing the ways (or not) we read and write. When someone mentioned a site called FutureLearn, and its free MOOC-like open course offerings, and a six week class called Reading Literature in a Digital Age, I was curious about the exploration.

So I dove in.

I’m glad I did.

Although some of the course material moved away from my main interest point, particularly as we explored modernity in Ezra Pound poetry, I kept finding my way back to the topic of digital reading in fascinating ways. The course mixed short video lectures by Professor Philipp Schweighauser (at the University of Babel), articles and inquiries, comments by participants and short quizzes of understanding.

WWWeb as Remediation Sponge

Here is a list of reading techniques we explored over the six weeks. Some I knew (but maybe with another name) and some I was only vaguely familiar with.

  • Hyper Reading (the way we scan digital text in an often non-linear fashion, seeking information that meets our needs)
  • Social Reading (annotating text with others in online spaces, so that the crowd understanding of a document can lead to a larger understanding of a text)
  • Close Reading (looking at the text and only the text, with very little context outside of what is on the page or the screen.)
  • Distant Reading (analyzing multiple texts with algorithms to determine patterns over time or central points that might be obscured by a closer look)
  • Surface Reading (examining the materiality of the text itself — the physical object — as well as all of the surrounding elements of the main text, such as title pages, copyright information, layout design, etc.)

At one point, we were asked to write a short essay on which of these reading strategies we most use, and I wrote this, thinking as much about my students as about myself as a writer:

These days, I am most attuned to the idea of “surface reading” because I am intrigued by the changes afoot in the world of literacies. The materiality of the “text” is an interesting notion, made even more so by the ways that we interact with screens in our daily lives (for good or for ill). As a teacher of young students, I am always struck by the disconnect between the literacies of our education system (paper-centric) and the literacies of their lives outside of school (screen-centric) and struggle with finding a bridge between the two. Therefore, paying close attention — “surface reading” — to how the materiality shapes our reading experiences, through media and through interactive elements and through access (or who does not have access) must become part of the conversations and considerations of expanded notions of literacy. I am also personally intrigued when discovering a new kind of text — who wrote it, who published it, how was it put together. Can I replicate it? With “surface reading”, I have an in-road to understanding the text in whatever form it might take. And if I can understand it, if I can peek beneath the covers to see how it works, maybe I can replicate it (remediate it?) myself as a writer, and then teach that new kind of writing/composing to my students, too. Giving them a chance to move from consumer to creator — sparking agency — is always my goal.

What the course reminded me of is how literacies is in the midst of a shift, and yet that shift is anchored in the traditional forms of texts in many ways. I appreciated the deep dives into various ways of looking at texts in various forms, and came out of the course with a better understanding of how researchers and lay readers approach texts in different ways, and seek different elements of understanding.

new media meets old media

I have now signed up for another course in a few weeks, called Teaching Literacy through Film. Wanna join me?

Peace (it’s in the text),
Kevin

Getting Groans and Writing Poems (for Two Voices)

Poems for Two Mathematical Voices

I knew this assignment would elicit some groans. And so it did. We were nearing the end of our poetry unit with Poems for Two Voices, and with our state math test on the horizon, I decided to have them write Poems for Two Voices on a math theme.

Poems for Two Mathematical Voices

You’d have thought I had told them to stick their toes into a vat of boiling tar. It’s funny how much kids create these illusionary walls between curricular areas. What do you mean, we are writing in social studies? Why are we learning argument writing in science? Why is math the topic of our poetry?

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 5.17.18 AM

But the reality is, we live in an interdisciplinary world, right? So, the more we do a bit of everything — particularly literacy — in the content areas, the better off our students will be.

Thus: poems with a math concept.

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In reality (teacher moment), the writing of the poems became another way for me (in support of our math teacher) to go over math vocabulary in a way beyond the textbook. I won’t say too many of the poems were deep explorations of mathematical themes (far too many were addition vs subtraction … boring) but learning a new form of poem with an underlying element like math does make for something different.

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So, I ignore the groans as they write the poems! And then, they sat with partners and read their poems (as these should be) with partners to get a feel and sense of the flow.

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

What Diversion Sounds Like (Masters of War)

The other morning, I had my list of tasks to do. You know, writing and other things that I needed to get done. Then, along comes Simon on Twitter, referencing Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, with a call to remix or remediate or something, and there I am, remembering the day I bought Dylan’s vinyl Biograph box set and heard Masters of War for the first time on my headphones. I was 19 years old, just starting out with songwriting, and that box set became a bible of songcraft to me.

And Masters of War .. that one song haunted me for weeks on end. I could hear its words in my head at night when I slept and its phrasing crept into many of my songs that year, when I focused on writing political songs in the era of Reagan. I even wrote a song for a band that I just formed (our name was Behind Bars) that was an echo of Masters of War. Mine, about US intervention policy in Central America, was called Another War. (I am still digging around for a version of it).

So Simon reels me back in to that time period of my life, and I wondered if I could do a version of the Dylan song in Soundtrap and invite others to add to it.

My initial goal (now that my list of tasks for the morning was kaput) was to do something sparse with Dylan’s song and keep open musical space for others. An hour or two later, I realized I had set forth a version with tension and very little space for others but I could not find a way to remove sounds without messing with the urgency of what I was creating. Still, Ron came on board, adding the very interesting voice of emergency (This is NOT a drill) and some guitar riffs, and Bryan arrived later, with even more guitar flourishes.

The invite to others is still open. We’ll see what happens.

Peace (it sounds nothing like War),
Kevin

PS – this version of Masters of War by Ed Sheeran is a new favorite of mine.

Writing with Light: I Fear I Left the Poem Behind

I fear I left the poem behind

I was reading the Sunday newspaper, when I came upon an interview with a writer who has published a new book about the history of computer Word Processors. The writer is Mathew Kirschenbaum and his book is Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing.

The conversation was interesting (including one point where he found historical references to writing on the screen as “writing with light” — that stuck with me and became ‘refolding these pockets of light’ in the poem), as it centered on the ways early Word Processing programs changed the way some people write (or at least, the perceptions of the writing process).

The interview references a famous quote by Joan Didion about how writing is a bit like sculpture, and a writer chips away to create form. Didion was referring to creative non-fiction writing from the strands of inquiry and research, I am sure, but I starting thinking of poetry in context to her insight, and how space and inference play a part in writing poetry. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.

Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. - Joan Didion

I’ve seen the Didion quote before but something about it, in context to the discussion about digital writing, stuck with me for the day, and that led to the poem above, called I Fear I Left the Poem Behind.

Peace (with hammers and chisels),
Kevin

App Review: Music Memos

Music Memo App

Well, now … this is some sort of magic. I had a songwriting friend who urged me to check out this new free app by Apple called Music Memos, and I finally got around to it yesterday. Yes, it is pretty nifty. You can record ideas, and not only will the app record (not all that special, really), it will lay out the chord structure (see image), and allow you to add in automated bass and drums.

So, the musical idea takes shape in the app. Sort of. It’s not perfect (the drums start off and end rather awkward and the bass doesn’t always want to be in tune with the song) but it is a great way to “jot down” musical ideas and at least hear them begin to come into formation. I jangled in a few chords and was pretty impressed with the results.

Did I mention this one is for free?

Here is a song I did in the app, moved to Garageband for a slight mix, then into Soundcloud, and then into Zeega …

Peace (in making music),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Brass Sun (Wheel of the Worlds)

Wren lives in a dying world. A world that is part of a mechanical solar system, created long ago, and now its inner clockwork is slowing down. That system is now dying, and it is up to Wren and some companions to make her way through the inner workings of the solar system to find the disparate “keys” that will connect to rewind the clock and save the Sun, and all of the worlds that are revolving around it.

Brass Sun (Wheels of the World) is an intriguing ride as a graphic story, immersing you fully into an imagined world in which a Blind Watchmaker acted as a sort of God to create the mechanical solar system, and then divvied out the keys to different planets so that they would have to work together in times of crisis. It didn’t work. Instead of seeing each other as partners, they went to war with each other, trying to be the planet that would have the upper hand with the most “keys.”

Part steampunk, part sci-fi, part tech adventure, Brass Sun centers on Wren, who is sent on her mission by her grandfather just before he is captured and killed by a government suspicious of his activities (which run counter to the political, religious narrative of the time). There are lots of complicated smaller stories unfolding in Brass Sun, and writer Ian Edgington never lets you forget that this is a strange world he has imagined. The art by I. N. J. Culbard is wonderful and engaging, particularly in the oversized book that I got from my public library.

This book is part of a larger series apparently (since the story does not resolve at the end of the version I read). It would be appropriate for any middle and high school classroom and would surely engage those young readers who enjoy the concept of alternative world building. Wren, as a protagonist, is a strong female character.

Peace (in the worlds beyond worlds),
Kevin

At Middleweb: Digital Portfolios (teacher edition)

 

Kevin professional digital portfolio

In my latest blog post at Middleweb, I explore the potential of digital portfolios for teachers. (My follow-up in a few weeks will focus on how my students are creating their own digital writing portfolios as the school year comes to a close). Here, I explore my own shift towards a digital teaching portfolio as home for evidence and reflection for my educator evaluation process.

Check out: Exploring the Potential of Digital Portfolios

Peace (port it),
Kevin

Collaboration and Chaos: The Best Laid Plans Sometimes Fall Apart

Collaborative HaikuI am a big fan of the potential of collaborative projects. I’ve instigated my fair share of activities in online spaces, inviting people to make with me, and I’ve participated in even more. There’s often a certain “magic” with writing and creating with other people with digital tools that demonstrates attributes that get at the heart of how technology is changing the ways we learn. Collaboration has often been the heart and soul of the Making Learning Connected MOOC (and some of us still hope to launch a version of CLMOOC this summer) and Digital Writing Month and Rhizomatic Learning, etc.

I’ve done versions of those projects in my classroom, too, but harnessing the energy of 12 year olds can be a bit tricky, so I often have to think through the process before launching into them.

A collaborative poetry project this week reminded me of the difficulties of working with young writers not all that accustomed to working with others this way. We’ve used the “sharing” element of Google Docs and Slides this year, mostly for peer feedback. I know they share with friends, and I’ve seen some “side projects” among them.

In this case, I created a large Google Slideshow for our haikus, and told them to “choose a blank slide as your own” and create a haiku image. I also did a mini-lesson on using Creative Commons images as well as design principles, which we clearly are still working on. I had this vision of a beautiful and engaging activity, where nearly 80 haikus with images from across four classes would come together in a seamless way.

I reminded them not to tinker with anyone else’s slides because it was an quasi-open slideshow (they needed to be logged into school Google accounts to access it).

You see where this is going?

The first class of the day was wonderful. They did a great job, although some of their images wouldn’t load later in the day. It went nearly exactly as I planned. It was downhill from there. The second class did fine, but I got a few who shouted across the room to other students to “get out of my slide.” Some were confusing the icons at the top of the project (which shows all collaborators) with intrusion into an individual slide. A mini-lesson ensued.

The third class had trouble right at the start because the wireless connection caused the slideshow to load slow, and some chose what seemed to be an empty slide, only to realize it wasn’t empty after all. And some students there tried to leave little notes for friends in their slides. That got some writers upset.

The fourth class (a challenging group at times) .. I decided to assign a slide number of blank slides for each to work on. You are Slide 56. You are Slide 74. This seemed logical to me at the time as a way to avoid confusion over who was working in which slides.

But then, someone added in a few slides at the start, by accident (maybe), and all of the numbered slides were suddenly off, and so we had some more confusion over which person had which number. Someone deleted a blank slide. The numbers were off yet again. Another student accidentally set her image as the theme for the entire slideshow, so that now everyone had an image of green grass as their background. Shouts and murmurs. The “undo” key fixed it but not before a wave of complaints hit the air.

Collaboration suddenly edged up to chaos. It was like some strange comedy routine unfolding in a virtual space in real time.

At that point, I just said “grab a slide and add your poem” and let it be what it was. The result is an interesting slideshow, and a story to tell, but not everyone got their poems into the collaboration project. The ones that are there are very cool, though. I still love the idea.

And off course, I have not given up on collaboration. Still, my experience does raise the question of how to best guide students in this kind of low-stakes activity. And it reminds me, too, of why many teachers often don’t take that step forward into online collaboration. I was doing a lot of unexpected management of collaboration when what I really wanted the day built on implicit trust that they could do this rather simple task of collaboration.

What I forgot to remember was the innate curiosity and social nature of sixth graders. Duh.

Peace (in collaboration with you),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

I’d be lying if I said I know what happened in this third book by Catherynne Valente. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland And Cut the Moon in Two, like its predecessors (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There), is a trippy adventure into an unknown landscape that requires you to allow Valente to lead you forward into the unknown. (And what I didn’t know until now is that this Fairyland series grew out of a reference to a book in a previous book that Valente wrote …).

This not your typical fairy story. Disney, this is not.

At one point, the narrator even interrupts the story, to let us readers know that the path ahead will be strange and winding. We need to hold the narrator’s hand and trust in the story.

Everything that goes down must come up again. When you leave the world, the going gets tough, whether you are a chemical rocket or a little girl. Take my hand, I know the way. Narrators have a professional obligation not to let their charges fall onto the pavement. (p. 89)

I still fell, and I am grateful for it. With the hero (of sorts) a girl named September; a blue-skinned magical friend from Fairyland with the name of Saturday; a red fire-breathing dragon getting smaller with every burst of flame due to a curse; and a fast-moving Yeti who is the midwife to the Moon itself … you get the picture. This is an adventure that will keep you off balance for days with each character wilder than the previous.

It is Valente’s writing that is the glue that holds it all together, thankfully. Her style of writing is unlike anything I have come across in recent years, as she both tries to build off the Alice in Wonderland narrative of “anything is possible if you withhold reality” and metaphorically tells of a girl, September, growing up and moving out of childhood, and what that means when you lose touch with your imagination.

You really do have to read the first two books to understand this third one, though, and even then … well …. you do your best. Me? I am now reading the fourth one: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland. (And yet another book just came out later this year: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home)

I’ve never been able to get any of my students interested in this series, for whatever reason. Maybe it is the “fairy” reference in the title, or maybe it is Valente’s writing style and voice. The vocabulary can be a challenge, too. But it saddens me, because I think some of my higher reading students could plunge into the adventure and maybe never come out the other side.

Peace (in fairylands all around us),
Kevin

Free Comic Book Day is Nearly Here

In case you were unaware, this coming Saturday (May 7) is Free Comic Book Day at many local and independent book stores. I usually go with at least one of my boys and grab a few titles, some of which I bring into the classroom for literacy activities in the school year. I also tell my students about Free Comic Book Day and let them know a few places where they can go.

You can check your geographic area at the Free Comic Book Day website and it will let you know which stores are participating. Each year, the crowd gets larger in our area.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin